After publishing my previous post, I watched Empire of the Word Part 4: The Future of Reading, which was a panel discussion on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, featuring Cynthia Good, Keith Oatley, Mark Federman, Bob Stein, and Bill Buxton.
Please let me stress that I highly respect all of the panelists who were involved in this discussion. My selective paraphrasing of their quotes, which I have woven into the tapestry of this blog post, doesn't come close to doing justice to the full range of excellent insights they shared. Therefore, although it is 53 minutes long, I highly recommend watching the full video.
The War of Word Craft
Bob Stein used the extremely popular multi-player online game World of Warcraft, where the players collaboratively create the narrative in real-time, as an example of the type of interactive multimedia experience that may be the true future of reading.
This analogy inspired my post title—since the debate seems to be about not only the future of reading, but also the future of how what we read (and by whatever means we “read” it) will be produced—or using far more dramatic flourish, this debate is about:
The War of Word Craft
e-Books are the end of anything worth reading?
When the financial implications of electronic publishing were briefly discussed, Bill Buxton explained that when things go digital and there is no cost of goods (i.e., producing an e-book), there is a law of economics that states the price drops essentially to zero.
Buxton argued this would mean the end of anything worth reading. Since, when professional writers are no longer able to make a living from writing (i.e., because e-books are “free”), then only amateurs will write. This will cause a dramatic drop in the overall quality of writing, and therefore no new writing will be worth reading.
Publishing companies are the gatekeepers of standards?
A somewhat similar sentiment was expressed by Cynthia Good, in defending what have traditionally been considered the gatekeepers for the standards of high quality, professional writing—publishing companies.
(Please note: Good was formerly the president of a publishing company, and is now an academic director of publishing.)
Good argues that historically it has been publishers and editors who select and perfect the books to be published, thereby guaranteeing high standards for quality writing—and that society still requires these standards.
The Cult of the Amateur
In 2007, Andrew Keen wrote the controversial book The Cult of the Amateur, which has the provocative sub-title: “how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.”
I am definitely not suggesting Buxton and Good are advocating a similar perspective. However, I find both the notion that only “professional” writers can write anything worth reading, and we require gatekeepers of “standards” to protect us from ourselves, to be incredibly pretentious and outdated ideas.
Writing is not an esoteric skill possessed by only a select few—and the best writers are not motivated (only) by money.
Publishing companies publish books that guarantee a high profit margin—and not high standards for quality writing.
The New Word Order
Bob Stein discussed the differences between the old-school and new-school mentality of authors.
The commitment of old-school authors is to engage with the subject matter on behalf of future readers.
By contrast, the commitment of new-school authors is to engage with readers in the context of the subject matter.
Stein believes the future role of the publisher is to develop a community around the subject matter, and bring the content to the community who wants to read it, instead of pushing the community toward the content you tell them they should read.
Mark Federman agreed, and sees the role of the publisher changing into one of creating an environment of engagement for genres and niche communities, which bring together writers and readers.
Federman also sees the roles of writers and readers becoming interchangeable within these communities.
Quoting Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: “my consumers, are they not my producers?”
Pardon the pun, but I believe this will become the new order of the publishing world, or more simply: The New Word Order.
A Different Kind of Social Media
Bob Stein explained that solitary reading is really a recent development in human history. Previously, most reading was a very social activity, where groups of people came together to listen to books (and poetry and other works) being read out loud.
Books (and reading as we know it) will not go away. However, Stein believes we are at the very beginning of the explosion of new forms of written (and other creative) expression.
The idea of reading (and writing) with others is going to become commonplace again, because we value the input of others, which greatly improves our individual experience, understanding, and unleashes the true joy of reading.
In what Stein describes, I see the future of reading and writing as a different kind of social media—a better kind of social media.
New Medium, New Message
In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “the medium is the message.”
Steve Paikin asked what, within this new medium we have been discussing, is the message?
Mark Federman responded:
“Connection—the ability to connect readers and writers and interchange their roles. The ability to collaborate as we construct knowledge, as we engage with one another's experiences, as we bring multiple contexts into understanding what it is we are reading and creating simultaneously—that's the message.”